Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A fierce and subtle alchemy

Stile End, February 2013, digital picture
I am nested in heather. Hunched beneath rocks whitened by sun and wind, I sip my tea and take in the view. The wind tugs my hair but my hands are warm from the cup between them. I settle further into the heather and start to pick out details on the hills across the valley: a narrow path rising and falling like a wave beneath the crags; a figure on the path, lilting from side to side on the uneven cobbles; two ravens gusting upwards from the ridge of the further hill, wheeling briefly in flight before settling again. I realise how rarely I take the time to stop like this, each outing to the hills brief and hurried, some thoughts noted, some photographs taken, somewhere else to be before long. This time, I try to really look: to pick out the curves and sweep of the crags as though they are braille beneath my fingertips; to see the hills as intricate shapes, with their wrinkles and shadows picked out by the low sun, rather than mentally naming them and moving on. I leave my camera in my rucksack, and settle into stillness.
Camera. I am pondering on the origin of the word: from camera obscura, a darkened room, a place in which the curious and the leisurely would sit and observe the landscape projected onto the wall of a circular chamber. In time, portable versions were used as aids for landscape painters, enabling them to trace the correct proportions of the view directly onto paper, although the rooms continued to exist as a form of amusement for the flaneurs and aesthetes. I think of the one which still exists on top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, positioned to provide an expansive panorama of the city, where carts and people could be seen moving along the city's closes and winding streets like figures in a play. It enchants me, this idea of the view being the subject of curiosity and interest; landscape as entertainment. I wonder if the skill of looking at landscape is becoming a lost art, a thing which belongs to another age, like watercolour landscape painting and film photography.
Hoy from Orkney, 1992, digital scan of 35mm negative
I started to take and develop my own photographs in my late teens. I have no idea from where the impulse arose: I knew no-one who had the skills, there were no courses available; I read a few books, bought a few chemicals and experimented. I had access to a crude darkroom in my former school: a dusty cupboard where a German-made enlarger from the 50s or 60s was hidden behind piles of old textbooks. I worked in plastic trays borrowed from the chemistry laboratory, kept my mixed chemicals in brown jars with ground glass stoppers.
I found an old box camera of my father's: a twin lens reflex which took rolls of 120 film, their bulky plastic spindles like sewing-machine shuttles. It had no light meter, forcing me to learn the obscure argot of aperture stops and shutter speeds. I photographed the landscape around my parents' home; disused railway bridges of dense blue-grey brick, lines of poplars at the distant edges of rutted fields, striped white with the early snow of winter. I worked only in black and white; partly because it was technically much easier, but also because I loved the antiquated simplicity of tone which defined the image; the world around me reduced to shadows and light, to form, shape and texture.
WH Fox Talbot, Oak Tree in Winter, 1843
I was, I realised later, discovering a long association between photography and landscape. I remember the first time I saw one of William Henry Fox Talbot's prints at the British Library, I was entranced by the fragile beauty of the image, by the magic by which this particular grey and cloudless Wiltshire day could be captured and preserved, here, now, on this paper. I think of Edward Muybridge's early work with large format cameras in the mountains and forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains, of Ansel Adams' timeless pictures of the same scenes, of the serene magnetism of Hamish Fulton's highland scenes: photographers have forever turned to landscape, as though the beauty of place is too intricate, too perfect, too complex to comprehend other than in retrospect.
Landscape was also attractive because it didn't move, of course. In the days of long exposure times, often lasting several minutes, people would come and go through a scene, crossing a field or a town square in less than the time it took to make the exposure, leaving only a trace of their passing on the photographic plate, like a ghost in the presence of something solid, a shadow of impermanence in a defined world. I see photographs like these now in museums; the ghosts of passers-by blurred against a lamppost or on a street corner, and I think of the brief passage of our souls, the Victorian photographs that purport to show spectres and otherworldly visitations, the slow processes of death and decline which can be stilled by the pressing of a shutter.
The beauty of traditional photography, I realise, is that it is a way of turning light into something solid: a mysterious alchemy by which tone and shade is transformed into crystalline salts. What we are seeing really is the light, captured and pinned like a butterfly beneath glass, in the same way that vinyl records truly capture the vibrations of sound, rather than a digitally-modified version of them. It is no wonder to me that some traditional cultures believe that to take a photograph is to steal a part of one's soul. We regard this as quaint superstition, whereas it may be a way of seeing the world that we have long lost, and for which we are the poorer.
Now I take digital photographs, and something in me sighs at the bland simplicity of the act, the wastefulness of time and effort which comes from something so disposable, so far from our attentiveness and patience. I can still remember, like a spectre on a photograph, the acidic tang of developer on my fingers, the unreal ochre light of the darkroom and the bur of photographic paper against my fingertips. Most of my equipment I have lost or given away, but I still keep a developing tank, my old 35mm camera, my files of fading negatives. I think I can still recall how to develop a film; it is a skill, like baking bread or mending a bicycle, that one should remember, as a talisman against the depredations of time.
These days, I make artists' prints: etchings and engravings, which I print in dark sepia tones, muddied with shadows like a memory of something found. It is a time-consuming process, with unpredictable results: each print is different, each showing the marks of hands in the soft, dark ink. There is, for me, something of that same photographic alchemy in the way that an etching reveals itself from the ink on the plate, the slow emergence into light which reminds me of a print appearing in a bath of developer. It is still a form of mystery; a way of looking at the world which requires patience and precision, a sense of joy in the happenstance and uncertainty of image-making, a willingness to be surprised, again and again, by the fierce and subtle beauty of the world.
Feather 2, drypoint etching, 2011